Whether it’s scratch-off tickets purchased at a check-cashing venue or Powerball and Mega Millions tickets picked up along with your Snickers bar at the Dollar General, the lottery is everywhere. It’s a huge business with massive advertising budgets, and state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction to keep players coming back for more. This is a tactic not unlike those used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers, but it’s usually not done under the auspices of government.

What Shirley Jackson’s Story Tells Us

Lotteries are a common feature of public life, with their roots in ancient times, including the Roman Empire (Nero was a big fan) and the Bible (the casting of lots is mentioned in a number of ways). They became increasingly popular in Europe as towns held lotteries to raise money for building walls or town fortifications. The first state-sponsored lotteries were in the Low Countries, but their origin is unclear: some scholars believe they are a calque on Middle Dutch “loterie,” meaning “action of drawing lots.”

One message that Shirley Jackson’s story — and other works like Anton Chekhov’s play The Bet — underscores is how dangerous it can be to follow tradition blindly. The villagers in Jackson’s story participate in a horrible act and don’t even consider how terrible it is because it’s an established part of their community. The same can be said for lottery players whose numbers appear on a ticket: they may think their numbers are luckier than others’, but every set of numbers has an equal chance of being drawn.